WRHS coach is wacky but wildly successful

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In a moment that captured both his success and his enthusiasm, Amato celebrated the 2009 NVL tourney title with his team.
In a moment that captured both his success and his enthusiasm, Amato celebrated the 2009 NVL tourney title with his team.

Without saying this man’s name, I’m willing to bet almost any Woodland student or fan (even some from Naugatuck) can guess who this guy is by a simple description: He’s a short guy with buzz-cut hair and an often-scruffy beard. He has perhaps spent more time in the building than anyone else in history, between teaching English, running WRHS Media, providing technological support, and coaching volleyball and tennis.

Volleyball fans know him as Coach Jim Amato. Woodland students know him as Mr. Amato. I know him simply as Amato. And trust me—there’s nobody like him.

Just take his daily schedule from above. It seems like a lot just thinking about it. But there’s no other way for Amato, he says.

“I just do what I do,” Amato says. “I really don’t know how I do it. I know that life happens from the time I wake up in the morning until the time I go to bed at night, and a bunch of stuff happens in between. I try to be as successful as I can at each venture. I’m sure if I stop and think about how much I’m doing, it would probably overwhelm me.”

Amato might be most well-known in the local public eye for leading Woodland’s wildly successful volleyball team, which has won two of the last three Naugatuck Valley League championships. Amato has racked up a ridiculous, 55-11 record in his three years as head coach and says the success of the program dates to its origin with Rob Schumann.

“Once I found out about his philosophy and how he wanted to dominate the NVL, I bought into it,” Amato continues. “We worked on developing strong varsity and important subvarsity levels, with good freshmen and solid JV teams that could even compete at the varsity level. Because of that, we have a little more staying power. It’s a philosophy of the program we’ve had for nearly 10 years now.”

Of course, volleyball isn’t exactly one of the fall’s headline sports and has never been offered to boys in the NVL. That makes Amato’s journey to his post as a varsity head coach much more interesting.

“Back in the day, I liked playing volleyball as a pickup sport or in [recreation] leagues,” Amato says. “They didn’t have many teams around, so I tried out for the girls’ team at Emmett O’Brien. Needless to say, I didn’t make the team—I wasn’t very good. But on that team, I met the girl who would be my wife, so at least something good came out of it.”

Amato started 15 years ago as Naugatuck’s freshman coach, while teaching in the borough. He soon became the JV coach before making the switch to Woodland, when it opened in 2001—he is one of the constantly-decreasing number of original staff members.

Today, Amato has a firm—but not suffocating—grip on Woodland’s volleyball program. Those who have seen him in action or played for him know he has a strong competitive side but is cool as a cucumber in the heat of battle, even bordering on the line of goofy.

“I make no bones about it—I’m competitive,” Amato says. “I don’t want my sense or desire to win everything all the time to be the sole focus. I don’t get on them when they make mistakes because they don’t go out there with the intent of making mistakes. And all my work during the match is done. Everything I have to set in place happens during practice. That makes me very calm—if I’ve done my work during practice, I can relax because of how hard we worked. You practice like you play, you play like you practice.”

The trademark goofy action of Amato on game day is his belly-flop into his team’s huddle before home games.

“The girls used to come out and run around the floor,” Amato says. “Then they would lay in a huddle in the middle of the court. One day, I told [assistant coach Chris] Tomlin that I was gonna go break up their huddle, so I dove in.”

Just don’t expect Amato to carry that tradition up to the tennis courts for his second season at Woodland’s boys’ tennis coach.

“We might do it on the side in the grass,” Amato jokes. “If we move to a clay or grass surface on the courts, maybe one day you will see me diving into the huddle.”

Amato’s journey to the head of the boys’ tennis squad is a little more run-of-the-mill, though he was a bit of a late bloomer. He attributes his assumption of the post to girls’ head coach Jessica DeGennaro, who is also a volleyball assistant.

“A lot of successful programs never just operate with a single coach,” Amato says. “For the volleyball program, I have a great staff with DeGennaro and Tomlin. DeGennaro coaches tennis, and I liked going up to help her every once in a while. When the position became available, she laughingly said, ‘Why don’t you take the boys’ team?’ And I haven’t played since my captainship back on the tennis team in high school, but I threw my name in the hat, and they decided to take a chance on me.”

Wait a moment—“my captainship back on the tennis team in high school”?

“We put together a ragtag team at Emmett,” Amato says. “We wore Hawaiian shirts and pants. We just did it our senior year. We went 0-16. I don’t think we won many games, let alone any matches.”

Amato maintains that his joy and success coaching the teams comes from the athletes with whom he works.

“I like working with these guys because they really enjoy the sport,” Amato says. “My success comes a lot from the athletes I’m involved with. You can’t be a good coach if you don’t have the dedicated athletes. That’s what it’s all about.”

There are secrets to his coaching, though, like the coaching books that litter the shelves in his second-floor office at Woodland.

“They work great balancing coffee tables and balancing other pieces of furniture that are uneven,” Amato jokes. “But when I need to come up with a plan or a different drill, I use them to come up with a basis.”

He’s ready to expand to other sports, too—but he’s thinking of the ones that aren’t offered at Woodland yet.

“If it’s got a court, a ball, and a lateral net, I’m all about it,” Amato says. “They only reason I don’t coach a winter sport is because we don’t offer badminton. That would be the ultimate combination. Tomlin said if we can open up a curling team, we could coach that.”

Yes, he said curling. Amato, Tomlin, and a few coworkers began their curling experiment last month after watching intently the Vancouver Olympics.

“It’s pretty hard to stand up on the ice when you’re sweeping,” Amato says. “It’s not like sweeping your living room or kitchen—it’s a lot more work. I don’t know how long until it catches on in high school, but we’ll be ready.”

In the meantime, Amato has plenty to keep his hands full. And he loves every bit of it.

“I think there will be time to rest when I’m dead,” Amato jokes. “I’m lucky that I get to do a job I really enjoy—a lot of jobs I really enjoy. I get to coach volleyball, which means I get to play volleyball with a bunch of athletes that really enjoy the sport. I get to run a newspaper and teach the kids how to run a professional business in the media-crazy world we live in. I get to work with technology with live online broadcasting and podcasting and digital cameras and video cameras and some of the top-end software. And now I get to coach tennis, a sport I loved as a kid.

“I might be a very busy man, but I consider myself a very lucky man. And I get paid for it.”